Soundtracks evoke something in me that few other collections of music can. They appeal to my sense of fantasy, where I can imagine myself in a galaxy far, far away (happy birthday John Williams) or the dark places in Middle Earth (props to Howard Shore). Soundtracks can transport us to placees less ordinary than the lives we live. We all long for more excitement and adventure in our lives at some point, and even as we go about our business, soundtracks (and films for that matter) remind us that it's OK to dream and to embrace those feelings.
I've long held that the holy trinity of film scorers are John Williams, Howard Shore, and Hans Zimmer. These three men have crafted soundtracks and scores that transcend time and culture and enter a new dimension entirely. Listening to pieces from Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Interstellar were transformative. They altered not only the way I view the art of soundtrack composition, but also how I view classic music and what it can do to stir the soul.
But these names are very familiar to anyone who loves great film and great film music. Let's look instead at five of my favorite scores by composers you may never have heard of. Hint: they are in a media that often gets swept under the rug and forgotten: video game soundtracks, plus a TV series. Surprised? The the music is powerful and atmospheric and absolutely worth your attention. So take a seat on the sofa, pop those headphones in, and get ready to take a musical journey.
6. Dying Light
Composed by Pawel Blaszczak
This video game about the outbreak of a zombie virus in the Middle East and the government interference and tyranny that follow is immersive and captured my heart. One important reason is the game's main soundtrack and the soundtrack to its follow-up DLC (downloadable content) "The Following." Composer Pawel Blaszczak draws upon heavy synths and electronic sounds for this game, and the frantic, melancholic, and urgent tones and melodies he uses are reminsicent of composers like Cliff Martinez and Trent Reznor. Haunting best describes this soundtrack. The soundscapes feel lush, and yet so desolate, like dust blowing across a shattered ruin. Though it may strike as a bit heavy-handed on the electronic drum sounds at first, if you dig deeper and really sink into this soundtrack, there's so much beauty. Cellos, flutes pianos, and some absolutely gorgeous Middle Eastern vocal passages are all woven into this tale of surival in a broken world.
5. Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies
Composed by Keiki Kobayasi, Tetsukazu Nakanishi, and Hiroshi Okubo
The main story of this game opens with a guitar piece composed by Agustin Barrios, and that tells you all you need to know about what to expect from this game's music. What appears on the surface to be just another action game about flying cutting edge jet fighters and blowing things up turns out to completely subvert expectations and become a dramatic and very moving game about the ambiguity and subjective nature of war and those caught in its wake. It's about honor, loyalty, and what heroism means to different people. The music here is tense and thrilling. It combines heavy industrial influence with a sort of cyber-electronic sound, and yet incorporates a lot of classical spanish guitar and even some interesting choral pieces, including the climactic final track "Megalith - Agnus Dei." It's an action movie, an intimate wartime drama, and a touching tale of loss and rebuilding, all told through music.
4. Soul Calibur Franchise Soundtracks
Composed by Various
There are simply too many composers to name who have loaned their work to this fighting game franchise, but they all deserve an incredible amount of recognition. The series is a tale about battles that rage between those who seek two swords: one to destroy the world, and the other to save it. It's an epic tale, and the music is equally epic. But it's also gorgeous and powerful. Some it is just incredibly moving, to the point where my own father (who's never played a video game in his life) asked me if I could throw some songs from the soundtrack on his personal Ipod. This music captures the rage and grace and tranquility found in war and battle. It takes you on an amazing mental quest where you can create your own stories of adventure and grand battles. It's bombastic and bold when it needs to be, with full sweeping orchestral pieces with blaring trumpets and pounding drums. And yet there are tracks that are quiet, still, even mournful,. Because unfortuantely, with every battle there is the price of blood and life to be paid. And these tracks are the ones that really raise the level of these soundtracks to masterful. There are too many amazing tracks to name, so I highly recommend you look up as many as you can and find your favorites. In the meantime, here are some of my favorites:
3. Kingdom Hearts Series
Composed by Yoko Shimomura and a host of classic Disney composers
Kingdom Hearts is a unique game series for two reasons. The first is that it combines classic Japanese role-playing elements and characters from the beloved Final Fantasy series with Disney characters. It's truly a blending of East and West. The second is that composer Yoko Shimomura is a literal superwoman, and I don't know how the hell she composed so many evocative and beautiful pieces, many of which capture immense emotion in less than two minutes, by herself for 15 years. In the game you visit classic Disney worlds from the many films, so credit for some of the music has to go to people like Alan Menken and other of the wonderful composers who have worked hard to give life to Disney and its cast of characters. But 96 percent of the music is done by Ms. Shimomura, and it will pull you in every which way. This game explores the nature of memory, friendship, light and darkness, right and wrong, and always being true to what you believe. The music feels steeped in fantasy, and yet it's richly human, as well. You will get lost in it either way. Again, this is a series with way more beautiful music than should be allowed, so please explore it on your own. But I'll help you get started.
2. Children of Dune
Composed by Brian Tyler
I have never watched Children of Dune. Nor have I ever seen any film in the Dune franchise (although hopefully that will change). But there's no denying a great soundtrack. I first heard some of the music from this soundtrack in a trailer for another film, and decided to listen to the whole thing. It absolutely blew me away. The main theme that Tyler uses throughout this soundtrack is breathtaking, and the combination of a myriad of vocal features along with the orchestra and Arabian melodies and instruments is haunting. The duduk and the female voice have a heavy presence in this soundtrack, but the mental picture they paint is one of vast landscapes and of horizons. It evokes feelings of tribalism and wilderness, and it makes you feel like you're standing in the most beautiful places on earth, or perhaps in the worlds of fantasy. It takes a small TV project and makes it as big and grand as it can be. This soundtrack easily ranks among the best film scores out there. Brian Tyler is a name you should keep an eye out for.
- Battlefield: Bad Company
Composed by Mikael Karlsson
The soundtrack alone is at least half the reason that this is my favorite game of all time. It's amazing how it manages to build worlds with so little. There are four, count them, four themes only on this soundtrack, done in orchestral, piano, and chamber arrangements. But this is some of the best composed and best played music on any soundtrack. Every note hits you like a freight train, from the mournful wails of the cello and bass, to the thunderous drums. This soundtrack is both smoke and fire. It is raging and loud like a shell from a tank, and it's creeping and insidious like a footstep in the dark. Like the franchise name itself, it transports you to distant scorched battlefields in forests and concrete. In any war, there are heroes, there are the survivors, and there are the dead. This soundtrack has songs that make you feel like you understand them all without being overly patriotic or saccharine. It's tactful, measured, and sharp as a knife. And it cuts deep.